Today we look back at a historic fire incident that had a significant influence on modern firefighting tactics.
The Blackwater Fire began with an electrical storm on August 18, 1937 near Blackwater Creek in Shoshone National Forest area of Wyoming. When the fire was first noticed, it looked like it only covered an area of two acres. However, at the would continue to grow and eventually cover roughly 1,700 acres and lead to the deaths of 15 firefighters.
From the NFPA Quarterly vol.31, no.3 (1938):
“[Above is an] aerial view of Blackwater burn. Dash line indicates edge of fire when finally corralled. Dotted line shows fire line lost at time of tragedy. Right-hand arrow marks the place where 7 men were burned to death by a spot fire from below, which these men had just discovered when fires were whipped to fury by sudden wind. Left-hand arrow points to spot on ridge where crew of 40 men were overtaken by flames while climbing to safety above timber line. Most of the crew who stayed with their foremen at this point were painfully burned. Three died later. Four others who broke away died in the fire.”
The Blackwater Fire was the first fatality fire to have an in-depth investigation into the events immediately after the incident. The lasting impact from this tragedy is that the analysis of the event led to the smokejumper program.
The Wildland Fire Leadership Program has set up a detailed Staff Ride to the Blackwater Fire. The concept behind staff rides is “to put participants in the shoes of decision makers on a historical incident in order to learn for the future.” It allows participants to ask thoughtful questions not just about “what happened?” but also “What would I have done?”
For more information regarding this and other moments in fire history, please feel free to reach out to the NFPA Research Library & Archives.
The NFPA Archives houses all of NFPA's publications, both current and historic.
Library staff are available to answer research questions from members and the general public.